A small girl sits alone in a room. In front of her on the table sits a large, pink marshmallow.
She stares at it longingly.
Suddenly she reaches her hand out to it and then, with a sudden change of mind, pulls her hand back. She sits on both of her hands and stares uncomfortably at the marshmallow for another 10 minutes.
This scene played out in a small room in Stanford University in the 1960s where a psychologist called Walter Mischel tried out his new study . Mischel and his team of researchers put a marshmallow in front of each child and told them that they could either eat it immediately or wait until the researcher returned in a few minutes at which stage they would get two marshmallows.
Some children waited and were rewarded. Other children just couldn’t stop themselves from eating the marshmallow.
This simple experiment is a test of what is called delayed gratification, the ability to hold off on something you want now in anticipation of a bigger reward later.
What is incredible about this research is that Mischel followed the children over five decades. The children who had delayed eating the marshmallow when they were 4 had much better willpower throughout their lives . They had stronger academic scores, better social connections and were less susceptible to stress .
We can think of many situations where delayed gratification may apply. Do you forgo a night out in to study for your exam in anticipation of getting the job you want? Do you put in extra effort in work now to improve your chances of getting a promotion? Do you smoke one cigarette now or do you push through the craving?
Of course we all give in sometimes but generally speaking if you can delay gratification at least some of the time it will stand to you in what you want to achieve.
Ok so…what if you were the child who would have eaten the marshmallow?
There are techniques that we can use to improve our ability to delay gratification. The craving that you get for the cigarette or the marshmallow is part of the ‘hot’ system in your mind. This is when you think about how sweet and delicious the marshmallow will taste when you eat it. The ‘cool’ system is the more rational part of your mind that considers the long-term implications of eating it versus waiting .
You may be able to override the ‘hot’ impulse by thinking ‘cool’ thoughts. That may be actively thinking through the consequences before rushing into something, distracting yourself from the immediate reward or just imagining it in a more abstract way. Instead of thinking about how much you’d like to go to the pub now can you envision your disappointment if you fail the exam?
It might not always work but trying to stop the ‘hot’ system from taking over might just get you through the worst of the cravings until you’re rewarded with your two marshmallows.
- Mischel, W., et al. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933–938.
- Casey, B. J., et al. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(36), 14998–15003.
- Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106(1), 3–19.